TWIN BUTTE, Alta. — It is so dry in southern Alberta that ranchers contemplating a cattle roundup under threat of wildfire must ask themselves a question: does the horse have shoes?
The spark from a metal shoe against a rock is enough to start a fire that, given windy conditions and heat, could quickly and easily get out of control.
Rain was in the forecast for Sept. 13-14, and more than a few prayers were being uttered for its delivery to help control a wildfire that could threaten the scenic and heavily treed southwest.
As of Sept. 11, a wildfire started by a lightning strike in British Columbia had crossed into Alberta, where it was feared it might reach into Waterton Lakes National Park. The park was evacuated Sept. 8.
That night, a public meeting at nearby Twin Butte Community Hall had standing room only as residents sought more information.
There were concerns the fire could work its way through mountain passes into the forest reserve where ranchers have at least 800 cattle. Ranches that border the park were also under threat.
“We’re in the first canyon out of the park to the north, but we did prepare for fire,” area rancher Sophie LaRocque said after the meeting.
“We evacuated our horses on Monday and we’ve been doing all sorts of ‘fire smarting’ around the place, so we’re feeling pretty good, just mainly frustrated with the lack of information at this point and really appreciative that they put this event together tonight.”
Her 200 cows have been moved to grazed areas near the home place, but ranchers with cattle in the heavily treed grazing reserves faced difficult decisions.
“It’s so hot right now, it would be hard to move them out in this heat,” said LaRocque.
“That’s a lot effort and those cows don’t want to come down out of there. So that’s a tough one, especially when it’s not maybe a great idea to go up there on horseback with shod horses. I’m feeling very fortunate that we’re not in that situation.”
Use of all-terrain vehicles is even more risky in terms of potential to spark a fire. They’ve been banned for weeks on any public lands in the region.
Garry Dzioba, regional field officer with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said ranchers had a golden opportunity to take action because as of Friday the fire was moving slowly. It was unlike last year’s wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alta., which changed course so suddenly that residents had to flee at a moment’s notice.
At the meeting, he recommended that cattle be moved out of the forest reserve but acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy to decide or easy to do.
“It boils down to the decision of the rancher. ‘Am I willing to move my livestock?’ Our recommendation is, it’s a proactive approach, no different than being fire smart around your home.”